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Getting mileage out of a mountain of tires

Several years ago this newspaper printed a story about Ernest Hunt's pile - no, mountain - of used tires in Danville, N.H. On July 9 this summer the Boston Globe carried a Page 1 story with a dramatic photo of Mr. Hunt, without help from Sherpas, climbing the summit of his tire mountain.

Last week the Wall Street Journal focused on Mr. Hunt with a headline noting that ''In Danville, N.H., Mr. Hunt Tries to Get Rid of 15 Million Old Tires.''

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Before any edelweiss begins to grow on Mr. Hunt's black peak in the White Mountains, it's time someone helped him - helped America - get rid of all those old tires.

Across the ocean in Japan, West Germany, and Britain, small but successful plants are recycling or about to recycle tires into fuel and useful raw materials. In Hamburg, for instance, Dr. Hansjorg Sinn, a chemistry professor and state senator, started to do something about used (and useless) tires not long after Ernie Hunt began his collection in New Hampshire. Professor Sinn designed in his laboratory a process for turning old tires into commercially saleable benzine, carbon black, steel, and gaseous hydrocarbons.

His prototype produced no unwelcome pollution. So Dr. Sinn went into commercial production. He says that the most profitable output from his wonderfully Chaplinesque array of pipes and distilling tanks is mundane carbon black. It is used in paints, plastics, and, fittingly, new tires.

The benzine output may be expected to become more profitable if Europe enters a new petroleum squeeze. In fact, a major impetus for the tire recycling research in the first place was the oil shocks of the 1970s.

In Japan, the Sumitomo Cement works ''cooks'' some 7,000 tons of old tires per year to provide fuel for cementmaking - as well as 2,100 tons of carbon black and 350 tons of steel annually. A British government-subsidized plant should go into production next year. And several American researchers say they lack only capital to get going.

But the industrialized world has not so far made tire recycling a major part of its recipe for public thrift. Professor Sinn estimates that West Germany produces about a quarter million tons of used tires per year. The US is believed to produce about a million tons per year to add to some 2 billion already scattered about the United States landscape.

Anyone who travels in North America knows that not all used tires go to waste. Some turn up as planters for petunias. (With one sidewall cut like shark's teeth and a coat of terra cotta paint, some of these look like pre-Inca pottery. But others, in more garish colors, look like ugly painted tires.) Still other tires dangle at the end of a rope, serving as children's swings. This paper's garden columnist has long since led a coterie of tomato-raisers into planting Beefsteak and Early Girl in tires filled with compost or manure.

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Other tires go to sea after they have put in their 40,000 miles on the nation's highways. Some are visible as bumpers on docks and piers. Others are invisible, dumped along the coastal shelf as havens for breeding fish.

There are still, of course, many firms that retread auto and truck tires - thus postponing the final day of reckoning when the tire must face that trip to Danville, N.H.

But when all these ingenuities are exhausted, millions of the black circles that made the invention of the wheel at last comfortable are still cluttering modern life. They line the walls and attics of garages. They form impromptu fences along property lines. But worst of all, they lie as unsightly debris across the industrial nations' landscapes.

Mr. Hunt's seven-acre, 40-foot-high mountain is the most dramatic sample of that debris, the summit of tire litter. The state of New Hampshire and the three towns into which the foothills of Mt. Hunt extend have hauled the owner into court on a covey of environmental charges. Their main concern is fire hazard.

Wouldn't it be more sensible if our industrial society moved toward Professor Sinn's solution? Instead of a fire hazard, the tires would become, among other things, safely burnable fuels.

Until magnetic-levitation vehicles become our civilization's method of transport, we are going to need tires. With cars and trucks being used in greater numbers even in formerly barefoot parts of the world, the annual mega-tonnage of used tires everywhere will climb. We need a widespread, efficient recycling system.

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